Column: Games a genuine display of humanity’s best

  • Wendy Holdener of Switzerland passes a gate during the women's combined slalom at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in the Yanqing district of Beijing. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) AP — Robert F. Bukaty

For the Sunday Valley News
Published: 2/21/2022 11:22:37 AM
Modified: 2/21/2022 11:24:54 AM

Somebody has to say it, so here we go. I LOVE THE OLYMPICS! I love every monobobbing, triple-lutzing, goofie-footing, rock-shotting, sliding, slipping, big-airing, snowboard-crossing, Super-G-ing, slaloming, short-tracking, long-tracking, normal-hilling, cross-checking minute.

I know. What about Kamila Valieva, the skater who was allowed to compete after a failed drug test? I love her too. Every coach-manipulated, heart-medicined, quad-jumping, triple-axeling bone in her slightly emaciated 15 year-old body. The Russian cheating machine — not so much. But I digress.

Countless commentaries bemoan the hyper-commercialism, the hype generally, the absurdity of awarding the Games to China in the first place and China’s use of the platform to project a nice-guy image. True all dat ... but still, I love the Olympics.

We live with hyper-commercialism every day and at least this is obvious, unlike the hyper-commercialism that rules our economy and Congress. As to China, no one outside of China misses the absurdity of the propaganda and suddenly thinks, “Um, maybe they’re not so bad after all.”

I love the Olympics for two reasons.

First, the concept of excellence is so trite and overused as to have rendered it meaningless. It is laughable when an organization reaffirms its “commitment to excellence.” That self-congratulation would be relevant if, and only if, others reaffirmed their commitment to mediocrity. We have lost all sense of proportion when every pop star and pedestrian guitar player is referred to as an artist, essentially indistinguishable from a violinist who has worked many hours a day for years and may not be able to earn a living.

But the Olympics, summer and winter, give us a bi-annual opportunity to witness excellence without qualification. The stopwatch and measuring tape don’t lie. You can’t hype a 5-minute mile into a 3:45. Only a rare few women can ski down an icy slope at 80 mph and only one will be fastest. Even the events that have some subjective component in judging have become more open and transparent over time.

Putting aside the fringe — though real — examples of cheating or driving kids too hard for the adults’ glory, the overwhelming majority of Olympians are striving without great recognition or riches. They’re pressing toward mastery because striving is an essential component of human nature.

It is breathtaking to watch women and men accomplish things that were unimaginable only years before.

This experience has even greater significance to decent dilettantes like me. I was a small college All-American swimmer decades ago and my times wouldn’t make Stanford’s junior varsity women’s swim team now. I’ve run marathons, XC ski raced, done many triathlons and raced bicycles fairly decently for years. Even then, a national class rider would kick my butt and that rider would be dropped on the first hill by a pro, who would be left behind on the next hill by an average Grand Tour pro, who would be far behind the winning breakaway in the Tour de France. And I loved knowing my place in the scheme of things.

World-class athletes know this best of all. In event after event, those who fall short, or were never medal contenders to begin with, derive great joy from the accomplishments of their competitors. They know what it takes — what it took — to cross the line first or complete a daunting routine under crushing pressure.

The other reason is seen by many as trite, but not to me. The mix of athletes from around the world is refreshing and hopeful.

Sports provide a common medium, mostly devoid of political ideology or racial/ethnic differences. In nearly every event, the “winners” and “losers” embrace one another, divided by mere seconds and united by the love of their sport and the sacrifices and dedication that brought each of them to that moment.

Years ago, my wife and I argued about competition, specifically about a “we don’t keep score” policy for the local kids soccer league. I hated it. Every beautiful aspect of the beautiful game is animated by the structure: scoring goals more often than the other team. Of course it can be toxic, but the antidote isn’t to do away with the game’s purpose. It is to teach the kids about sportsmanship, taking pleasure in a great goal by either team and feeling satisfaction from the process, not just the product.

Olympic competition is beautiful if you can put aside the excessive hype and focus on the human brilliance on offer. And, if all else fails, there’s Johnny Weir. I’d watch three hours of curling just to see what he wears next.

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